Neil Simon once had four different plays running on Broadway at the same time, a record. So there's nothing unusual about two Simon plays now running at two different venues in Anchorage, Perseverance Theatre's "The Odd Couple" at Sydney Laurence Theatre and "The Sunshine Boys" at Anchorage Community Theatre.
Both are fine, engrossing productions and their simultaneous staging is an opportunity to consider Simon's enduring place in American theater.
"The Odd Couple" is one of those rare works that can be said to have changed entertainment. It took the country by storm when it debuted 50 years ago; by 1967 I saw a production in Haines, Alaska, that had the crowd in stitches. It wasn't just Simon's brilliantly paced and eruptively witty writing, honed in his journeyman years writing for television next to people like Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, but the fact that this was something totally new and unexpected.
Simon may be said to have invented the roommate genre, a format that not only spawned the "Odd Couple" film and television show, but paved the way for shows like "Golden Girls," "Lavern and Shirley," "Friends" and even the Bert and Ernie duo on "Sesame Street." Before slob Oscar and fastidious Felix moved in together domestic comedies centered on families: "Leave it to Beaver," "Make Room for Daddy," "The Donna Reed Show." A living arrangement featuring two (or more) unrelated men had been a fact of life from colonial times, but to see it onstage, however comic, pushed the far edge of social acceptance.
Perseverance's production features a top-drawer cast led by Bostin Christopher as Oscar. As might be expected, Christopher succeeds in playing the boisterous sportswriter broadly, but credibly. James Sullivan, who was part of Perseverance's superb "God of Carnage," is a properly pathetic Felix, the fuss-budget newswriter kicked out of his house who has to flop at the messy apartment of his divorced buddy.
The supporting cast is a strong ensemble who hit their timing and inflections perfectly under the direction of Michael Stevenson. They include Enrique Bravo, Ben Brown, Corin Hughes-Skandijs and Jeff Hedges as the pair's poker buddies and Olivia Shrum and Heather Laverne as the upstairs sisters set up for a double-date that misfires.
Art Rotch's realistic set is a beauty; bring your teenager so that they can see how the most trashed-out room can be made spic and span in a matter of 10 minutes by two determined stage hands.
Tom Lucido's set for "The Sunshine Boys" is actually two sets, opposite sides of the same structures that cunningly can get turned around in a matter of minutes. Again the cast, directed by Kevin T. Bennett, is excellent. Charlie Cardwell is an acidic curmudgeon. Willie. His former vaudeville partner Al, played by Douglas Causey, has the same issues of aging, ill health and memory loss as Willie, but has had better luck coming to terms with it. Todd Sherwood is Willie's much-abused nephew, struggling to get the two old thespians together for a big network television tribute, a reprise of their "classic" skit, "The Doctor and the Tax Man." But the one-time headliners haven't had anything to do with each other for 11 years and don't feel like making up, even for big money.
Marty Bauman is an Ed Sullivan type, tapped to host the special program, and Jane Baird is the actress playing the flirty nurse in the skit. Eric Worthington as a real nurse, perhaps the ugliest in history, brought down the house. He did this just by sitting in a chair when the lights went up.
Simon comedy is best watched close up. Facial expressions, deadpans, startled reactions play are as much a part of the script as the words. In both of these shows we get plenty to enjoy. The house was less than half full when I attended "Odd Couple" on a Wednesday, but the place was loud with laughter. The ACT show also had the place in stitches. I often bring a few gumdrops or candies to enjoy when the action slows down. At the end of these shows I found that the treats were untouched, still in my pocket.
That there are no slow parts, no dead spots, in a well-produced Simon play speaks to his craftsmanship. That these shows live on speaks to his artistry. Simon's best work is about partnerships -- working with, living with, enduring and depending on other people, people with whom one has no obligatory family connection, but with whom friendship and experience has forged an equally deep bond with its benefits and torments.
Simon's humorous characters achieve tragic reality. Small, unintentional annoyances -- your roommate's use of air spray, your co-actor's switch of a word in the dialogue -- turn into epic faults. But like most faults, they are collaborative. As we perceive stubbornness, blindness, orneriness and foolishness in the people we know best, it is almost certain that we're looking at a mirror.
THE ODD COUPLE, presented by Perseverance Theatre, will be seen at 7:30 p.m. Weds.-Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday through April 26 in the Sydney Laurence Theatre.
THE SUNSHINE BOYS will be presented at 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through May 10 at Anchorage Community Theatre, 1133 E. 70th Ave.
Tickets for both shows are available at centertix.net.